Monday, June 15, 2009

The New Kid in Town

By Snoopy
Las Vegas, NV

Editor's Note: Snoopy landed an exclusive interview with the first Brit to win a bracelet in two years. Enjoy!

As "God Save the Queen" belted out of the loudspeakers, I was still unsure. Perhaps I'd imagined it all, maybe it was another one of my bizarre dreams induced by the free-flowing alcohol at the Alligator Bar. After all, a few days prior they had mistakenly played the national anthem of Sweden to a somewhat disgruntled Finn. Even with Jeffrey Pollock announcing that this was the UK's first bracelet in two years, I remained unconvinced.

Then, as I neared, there he was, the UK's latest hero, toothy grinned and armed with a posture that appeared unsure as to how to react to both the collective stare of the Amazon Room and the musical notes that are usually saved for Olympic gold medallists. Perhaps given a second chance, he'd stand upright with his hand over his heart, a patriotic tear in his eye before giving a mighty salute to his ruler.

And so, it was confirmed, JP (John-Paul when he's in trouble with his parents) Kelly was the winner of Event #20's $1,500 Pot Limit Hold'em Freezeout and the latest recipient of a shiny, gold bracelet, the last Brit to do so since The Hendon Mob's Ram Vaswani took down the $1,500 Limit Hold'em Shootout in 2007.

Despite his baby-faced looks, JP has been kicking around the scene for a few years now. Naturally, he was a product of the poker boom and one of many to have been enticed into the cardrooms by Late Night Poker, yet he is probably more experienced at the live felt than one might expect. Hailing from Aylesbury, England, a 16-year old JP began thinking obsessively about the game, and would rise at 7am, a hunger in his eyes, to fit in a couple of hours online before heading off to school. Upon turning 18, he quickly ambushed the now defunct Grosvenor Casino in Luton, causing havoc with the stubborn veterans as he unleashed a relentlessly aggressive style that was perhaps ahead of his time.

A year or two earlier I made my debut at the Gala Casino, Nottingham whilst (supposedly) studying for a degree at the nearby University. During that time, few young players dared to enter a cardroom. The poker boom had hissed, but not quite exploded, and the cardroom was still dominated by old timers, many of whom considered it to be their turf, and no place for a cocky, young teenager. Now and then, I used to travel to other venues, one of which was Luton. One day I arrived, braced for the £50 rebuy, and all I could hear was mutterings of a "new kid in town" a "young 18-year old prodigy that was winning every comp in sight" – I soon learned that this player was none other than JP Kelly, and while many admired his talents, there were those who begrudged them, as if envious that such a fresh-faced "child" could out-think them in a game that they'd been playing for decades.

As I shared tables with some of the room's more regular players, the mutterings continued, some calling him a "genius" whilst others simply labelled him "lucky." For me, JP was a precursor of the Internet pro that would, in the UK at least, come to dominate the game and overthrow so many of the veterans who had made their local cardroom their home. Most players simply came to play tight, to apply a safe, solid game and hope the cards ran their way. The casino was little more than an escape from their daily life, and a win was merely an added bonus that they often didn't expect. JP's goal, however, was solely to win, and he took the game to another level by playing more aggressively than anyone in the building, pouncing when he smelt weakness and making moves that no one else dared to make.

"I went to Luton with a couple of mates," he says. "I used to take it a bit more seriously than everyone else did. I was the one that started first, so I was the ringleader, and I had the most success early on. I was only 18 at the time. Looking back now, I had no idea how I played. If I thought someone was bluffing or weak, I just bet or raised - it wasn't very well thought out, but it worked."

Of course, it wasn't long before JP was translating his success into bigger bucks, taking on the local festivals and winning side events with considerable ease. A top three finish became the norm – he played for first, nothing else – and before long he was nicknamed JP 'Wonderkid' Kelly by his fellow players, all of whom had acknowledged his natural gift for the game and believed him to be a future star of the felt.

Eventually, JP's bankroll grew substantially enough that he could start playing bigger events, and in April, 2006, he won his first main event when he toppled Luke Patten at the Luton Springfest for a £45,000 payday, an event, incidentally, that I managed to cash in for the monstrous sum of £1,500 (aka my money back). This win triggered a lot of interest, and soon JP was donning the colours of Blue Square Poker as one of their sponsored players and making appearances in some of the earlier EPT seasons.

But then, at the tail end of 2006 and after becoming such a star of the live felt, he stopped playing live. His sponsorship deal with Blue Square came to an end, and despite a GUKPT that was fast building pace, adding a lot of value to events and creating some of the country's first six figure prizes, JP was no where to be seen. This was surely the perfect platform for him to start making an even bigger name for himself and showcase his incredible talents, but live poker now seemed of little interest to him.

"Well, I moved to Brighton, and sometimes you don't want be traveling around all the time," he confesses. "I just wanted a break from it all. I played a lot online too, and I enjoyed it. I like playing live still, but it's time consuming, you have to put a lot of hours in, so if I do go somewhere, it's because I like going to that place and playing there." Obviously, it would appear, the exotic locations of Luton, Bolton and Walsall were no longer an attractive prospect, and who could blame him?

But despite his live prowess, JP was clearly a talented poker player period, and perhaps online shores were to prove a more efficient choice for a budding poker pro. If anything, he certainly teamed up with a formidable crew: "One reason why you didn't see much of me was because I went to Australia for four months around the time of the Aussie Millions. I stayed with [Chris] Moorman, Geefore [David Gent], Pab [Paul Foltyn] and Stevie [Devlin], and they're all really good players, so I learned a lot from then on how to play online tournaments. Playing these things, it helps, it's all about decisions and situations, so I could talk to them about that, and I started thinking about tournaments in a different way than I had been. I was used to playing live, and you need to be more fundamentally sound online, so I had to adjust my game."

The company he kept must have reaped rewards, as over recent years, and playing under the monikers MavFish and JP 5-time (the latter, I can reveal, derives from the catchphrase of former WWE wrestler Booker T), JP managed to accrue an impressive set of results, including second in a 2008 Omaha FTOPS event for $60,505.50 and a win in a $150,000 guaranteed event on Ultimate Bet last February for $53,560. He's by no means on a par with moorman1, but he's not too far behind and he's shown that he can adapt to both the live and online format with considerable ease.

Photo by Flipchip

Back in Vegas, and JP is being surrounded by media, all mustard keen to grab a few words with the latest bracelet winner. Despite his hangover after a raucous celebration the night prior, JP is as fresh-faced as ever (and equally baby-faced as when I first met him), and wooing the female members of the press with his amicable demeanour and cheeky smile. Before long, it's my turn, and I can't wait to ask him how he feels about winning a bracelet. Unsurprisingly, he's as laid back and nonchalant as he was when his Luton opponents were labelling him 'Wonderkid' and worshipping his every move.

"I wasn't dreaming of the bracelet when I woke up for the final," he claims. "I'd played really well on Day Two – didn't lose any focus; made perhaps just one mistake which wasn't even that bad – and was just concentrating on doing everything I'd done the day before. Even heads-up I was just focused on winning the tournament. When the bracelet was put on the table, I didn't even look at it. I didn't know what the prizes were and I had no interest in laddering up, I just played it like a normal tournament and went for the win, regardless of the bracelet."

Hoping to lure out his crazy side, I asked him how he was going to celebrate, and what he was going to spend his money on:

"I went to MGM last night, had dinner at a really nice steak house, bought lots and lots of drinks, and returned today pretty worse for wear. There was no Cristal involved, just had some beers and a bit of wine. I certainly won't waste the money buying loads of luxuries. I celebrated yesterday, and was happy to do that, and was really glad that everyone came."

This, for me, is what sets JP apart from the rest, and why he is far from one of the many "one hit wonders" that have littered the World Series over the years. Even back in Luton, it didn't take long for people to realise that this wasn't your average young pro, getting starry-eyed after some early successes and thinking he's God's gift to poker. Somehow, he's always had his feet firmly planted on the ground. It was this self-awareness that allowed him to reform his online game and translate his live successes onto the virtual felt, and it's because of this that I wouldn't count him out for a second bracelet in the future.

There's no doubt that he's a talented player, perhaps one of the best the UK has produced, but what makes him even more dangerous is that he doesn't possess an ego, and won't fall down that hole that other big winners have stumbled upon in the past. Whilst others have splashed their winnings on overpriced luxuries and regularly buying into $10,000 events, JP will most likely take the more sensible approach, and return next year with his bankroll in tact, and his game most likely twice what it was the year prior.

As he says himself: "I'm looking forward to the reception when I get home, but it won't change me. I won't get big headed or anything like some players do after a big win. Each time I come to the World Series I do better than the last, and I really feel like I gain in experience every year."

We're only a third of the way through the Series, and JP has his sights set on further gold. With a host of bracelet events pencilled into his schedule, Brock Parker better not get too comfy at the top of that leader board, because as was once the case in Luton, here in Vegas, there's a new kid in town.

Snoopy is a writer from London, UK, most known for his stellar reporting at Blonde Poker.. You can read his 2009 WSOP musings over at Black Belt Poker.

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